Book Review: Natural Theology: Five Views, by James K. Dew Jr. and Ronnie P. Campell Jr.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.


Natural Theology: Five Views, by James K. Dew Jr. and Ronnie P. Campell Jr. 289 pp. Baker Academic.

In the book Natural Theology: Five Views, there is certainly a matter of debate about how to define natural theology and whether it is a useful tool in apologetics, philosophy, and practical theology. The essays are written by top scholars in the fields of theology and Christian philosophy. Contributors include John C. McDowell (a Barthian approach) Alister E. McGrath (a classical view), Paul K. Moser (a deflationary approach) Fr. Andrew Pinsent (a Catholic view) and Charles Taliaferro (a Contemporary View).

Taliaferro takes a favorable view of natural theology and says the way to go about doing natural theology is through “abduction” or “inference to the best explanation.” He defines natural theology as “the philosophical reflection on God based on reasoning that does not rely on revelation (or revealed theology) (pg.15). He thinks we can evaluate worldviews (i.e., theism and naturalism) and examine their internal coherence and explanatory power (pg. 16). He then gives a brief overview of some of the arguments from natural theology (i.e., a contingency argument, a teleological argument, and an argument from consciousness). He also answers some common objections. He notes that people like Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Paul Moser note that natural theology arguments can only lead someone to the God of the philosophers, and not the God of faith (pg.26). Pursuing the God of the philosophers is a purely intellectual matter and an exercise in vanity. But as Taliaferro rightly points out, natural theology is a first step to get someone think about whether there is a God. I have seen this in our apologetics ministry on college campuses. Nobody thinks the goal of natural theology is salvific. It is just a way to get someone out of their naturalism, agnosticism/atheism and to hopefully start to consider that there is more to reality than the material world. The ultimate goal is to get them moving towards the Gospel (revealed theology).

Fr. Andrew Pinsent (a Catholic view) rightly notes that the Catholic faith defends the legitimacy of natural theology (pg. 72). After all, just read Aquinas. He also notes that Catholic theology recognizes the limitations of natural theology. He quotes John Henry Newman who said, “Religion, it has been well observed, is something relative to us; a system of commands and promises of God towards us. But how are we to be concerned with the sun, moon, and stars? Or with the laws of the universe? ….They do not speak to sinners at all. They were created before Adam fell. They ‘declare the glory of God’ but not his will (pg. 74). Basically, Pinsent reiterates the same thing. Natural theology is not salvific. Nobody ever claimed it was salvific. But should not be utilized in contemporary discussions about the God question? Of course not.

Alister E. McGrath has done a tremendous job in his academic work on natural theology. His chapter presents a classical view. He notes that the term “natural theology” hints at a relationship of disclosure or insight between the world of nature and the transcendent reality of God (pg. 103). He also notes the term “natural theology” isn’t itself biblical, can certainly be used to cautiously to describe certain thoroughly biblical lines of thought, not least concerning the capacity of the complexity and immensity of nature to point to God.” (pg. 103).

McGrath points out that natural theology needs to go beyond an intellectual exercise. He thinks it can point to the beauty and complexity of nature. He asks a pertinent question: does natural theology elicit a rational recognition of the reality of God? Or is the response to the natural world better framed in terms of an imaginative embrace of God or a relational loving God? (pg. 106). McGrath notes that the default definition of natural theology is “the branch of philosophy which investigates what human reason unaided by revelation can tell us concerning God (pg. 106). But McGrath finds this definition to be quite short sighted. While he sees an apologetic role for natural theology, he doesn’t see a place for a view of natural theology that seeks to subvert revelation to a demonstratable proof of the existence of God (pg. 121). God and nature are not disconnected entities. McGrath wants natural theology to be seen as an authentically and characteristically theological practice, rather than merely as an aspect of philosophy of religion (pg. 121).

I first became acquainted with Paul Moser when I read his work on the hiddenness of God problem. He has authored some excellent articles on the topic. I also own one of his books on religious epistemology. Moser presents what is called a deflationary approach. One of the most repetitive things that Moser says is that natural theology does not lead one to morally perfect God worthy of worship. In Moser’s view, natural theology arguments fail to engage the human will. He says “evidence from design, a first cause, or moral agency will not increase the probability of a God worthy of worship” (pg. 164). In relation to apologetics, he says “we can support Christian apologetics without the familiar arguments of natural theology, but only if it attends to the right kind of evidence. That would be the experimental evidence invoked by Paul, John, and other New Testament writers” (pg. 164).

He goes on to say, “we don’t need the dubious arguments of familiar natural theology to support Christian apologetics” (pg. 164). For Moser, God’s revelation to humans is directed towards moral transformation. God simply does not reveal Himself so we can formulate arguments and debate them. God is not as overt as some want Him to be because he leaves room for us to freely accept him rather than being coerced. Moser primarily appeals to Paul’s experiential evidence in Romans 8: 15-19 and the work of the Holy Spirit. While I agree with Moser that God is certainly interested in a change of our will and moral transformation, I do not see much difference in this approach than what Mormons tell me on the campus where do our ministry. Mormons tell me if I am open to God and have the right disposition (I am truly seeking), and I will read the Book of Mormon, I will have an experience with the Holy spirit who will confirm it as being true. I am sure Moser has heard this. Perhaps he has a response.

What value is natural theology? Moser says that “natural theology doesn’t have conclusive or confirmatory value relative to a God worthy of worship.” He says natural theology “does not serve as a as an effective preliminary or initial step toward reasonable commitment to a God worthy of worship” (pg. 173). But he grants that “natural theology has a more modest value, namely, interrogatory value in prompting questions about God and evidence for God” (pg. 173).  I tend to agree with this. As I said, I think natural theology can serve as a first step in breaking someone out of their naturalism, materialism, agnosticism, etc. I have seen that happen firsthand on the campus where lead an outreach and apologetics ministry.

John C. McDowell offers a Barthian approach. Karl Barth stands as a towering figure over twentieth century theology. Karl Barth’s starting point is his desire to deny all knowledge of God apart from God’s own gracious revelation of himself. God reveals himself in Christ and this revelation is made known to us in Scripture.

Thus, Barth was quite critical of natural theology. McDowell gives an overview of some of Barth’s views from his book Church Dogmatics. In the end, I still come to the same conclusion. Yes, natural theology has its limits. Everyone needs the Gospel. Natural theology is just a first step in leading someone to the person and work of Jesus.

In the concluding chapter, the editors mention BNT (Bare Natural Theology) and RNT (Ramified Natural Theology). BNT is uses to discuss a ‘bare” natural theology which can only lead one to a generic concept of God. BNT utilizes cosmological, teleological and moral arguments (others as well). RNT takes one beyond a bare natural theology to the claims of a specific religion. Thus, the goal is to proceed argue for a specific God who has revealed Himself through a specific miracle claim, prophecy, etc. This is exactly what classical apologetics has always attempted to do.

In the end, there is much to learn from this volume on natural theology. My only wish is that someone like myself (and others) could tell what it is like to see natural theology in practice on a college campus. I see the benefits of utilizing natural theology as a first step in leading one closer towards considering the seriousness and beauty of the Gospel.  

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